Onward rise of U.S. ethanol

by Emily Buckley
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The U.S. ethanol industry is expanding at an unprecedented rate, heading towards annual production of 5 billion gallons of ethanol and 9 million tonnes of distillers grains by 2010


Two decades ago this summer, a handful of ethanol producers met in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., for what would become the first annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Trade Show (FEW). At the time, the ethanol industry was struggling to survive.

On-farm stills, once numbering in the hundreds, were shutting down in bunches and the industry’s lifeline was held intact only by the efforts of large maize processors that produced enough ethanol to give the renewable fuel some degree of validity in the eyes of the petroleum industry.

Ethanol production was a tenuous endeavor in the decade that followed, and just 44 U.S. ethanol plants — 11 of them wet mills — remained on line by 1995. Around that time, however, the emergence of new generation, farmer-owned cooperatives marked the beginning of what would become the U.S. ethanol industry’s Golden Age. The cooperative structure allowed farmers to collectively raise money and build large-scale dry mill ethanol plants. By the late 1990s, the LLC business structure, which allows for non-agricultural investors, became more common. Dry mills became larger and more efficient, construction costs dropped and the time required to build an ethanol plant was cut in half.

Today, the ethanol industry continues to expand at an unprecedented rate. The industry is expected to produce more than 3.3 billion gallons in 2004, up from 2.81 billion gallons in 2003, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Currently, there are 78 ethanol plants on line in the United States; 10 additional plants under construction will soon add over 400 million gallons of annual production capacity.

Two decades after those industry pioneers gathered in St. Louis, more than 1,500 people from around the world flocked to Madison, Wisconsin, June 22-25, for the 20th Anniversary FEW. Shattering attendance and vendor participation records, the event was a vibrant celebration of the industry’s growth.

"The industry is in the right place at the right time in history," Mike Bryan of BBI International said in his opening remarks at the event. "It is at a point where we can claim the rightful place for renewable fuels. Growth stops when you reach market saturation. We certainly haven’t reached that yet."

In fact, U.S. ethanol production and use is expected to reach 5 billion gallons within three to five years. In part, the industry’s growth has been accelerated by the demise of its only real competitor, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Once the petroleum industry’s oxygenate of choice, MTBE has polluted groundwater wells across the U.S. and is now banned in 18 states, including New York and California, where nearly all of the gasoline sold now contains ethanol.



As the U.S. ethanol market grows, so must the market for distillers grain, one of two valuable co-products in the corn-to-ethanol dry mill process. A significant percentage of an ethanol plant’s total revenue is based on sales of distillers grain and, if captured, carbon dioxide.

Dried distillers grain is usually referred to as DDG. When solubles are added to the feed, it is called DDGS. Both forms are frequently referred to as "distillers." Distillers that is not dried is usually referred to as distillers wet grain, or DWG.

For years considered a valuable component of beef and dairy cattle feed rations, distillers grain is now extensively used in swine and poultry rations as well. Harold Tilstra, a co-product technical expert for Land O’Lakes, recently said the rise of distillers grain is the biggest change to the animal feeding industry since the introduction of soybean meal. According to Tilstra, the ethanol industry is currently marketing over 4 million tonnes of distillers grain (dry weight) into the domestic market.

"If we go to 5 billion gallons [of ethanol production annually] in the next few years, we will be looking at 9 million tonnes of distillers grain on the market," Tilstra said.



In terms of ethanol feedstocks, corn makes up 95% of all U.S. production. The "Corn Belt" states have improved their agricultural economy by turning local crops into local fuel.

However, states with less available corn are not as fortunate. As future ethanol producers in these states consider the idea of railing in corn from the Midwest — a viable option for some — alternative feedstocks are being explored.

Hulless barley, sugar cane and wheat are being researched, especially in corn-deficient areas; while some of these feedstocks lag behind corn in alcohol yield, several have unique and valuable properties.

Among alternative feedstocks, biomass — or cellumosic material — is perhaps the most promising. Approximately 180 tonnes of agricultural biomass is produced in the Untied States each year, sufficient to produce 20 to 30 billion gallons on ethanol. However, despite its abundance, biomass is difficult and costly to convert into ethanol. Advanced enzymes are needed to break down the material for production. In the past three years, scientists have reduced the enzyme cost by a factor of 20, but further reductions are needed. According to one leading manufacturer of enzymes, the next advancements will be made by combining new pre-treatment technologies with continuous enzyme improvements.

These and other technological innovations will unlock the true potential of ethanol and bring about greater energy independence for America.




First integrated bio-refinery to be developed

WILMINGTON, DE, U.S. and GOLDEN, CO, U.S. — DuPont and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have announced a $7.7 million cooperative agreement to develop, build and test the world’s first integrated bio-refinery pilot process that will make fuels and chemicals from the entire corn plant.

The agreement is part of the larger $38 million DuPont-led Integrated Corn-Based Bioproducts Refinery (ICBR) project, a consortium that includes DuPont, NREL, Diversa Corporation, Michigan State and Deere & Co.

Purified sugars from the corn kernel will be the primary source of value-added chemicals, possibly including 1,3 propanediol (PDO), the key building block for DuPont’s newest polymer platform, Sorona, which can be used in applications such as textile apparel, carpeting and packaging.

The remainder of the corn plant — the stover — will be converted into fuel-grade ethanol and electrical power.


Bioenergy potential too often neglected, says FAO

BONN, GERMANY — Bioenergy holds great promise for developing countries in creating income and labor opportunities but is often neglected by policy-makers and needs to be urgently integrated into agricultural and forestry programs.

Speaking at the International Conference on Renewable Energies in Bonn, Germany in June, Gustavo Best, senior energy coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said bioenergy has emerged as an environmentally friendly, cost-effective and locally available source of energy. He highlighted the production of ethanol from sugar, sorghum and cassava and of biodiesel from rapeseed and other energy crops as positive examples. "Considerable amounts of fossil fuels can be displaced by bioenergy," he said.

"There are indications of a growing and potentially very large carbon market converting agriculture into a major player in this field. International bioenergy trading is becoming a reality. Wood, wood chips, ethanol, biodiesel and bioelectricity are being transported across borders," Best said.

FAO works with the Shenyang Agricultural University in China in developing new sweet sorghum varieties and technologies to produce ethanol to substitute gasoline. Sweet sorghum has the advantage of producing both animal feed and sugars for energy conversion.

FAO promotes sustainable bioenergy systems for poverty alleviation and assists its member countries in the integration of bioenergy into agriculture, forestry and rural energy development efforts.

For more information, visit the following websites:
• International Conference for Renewable Energies:
• UN FAO Sustainable Development Department:


Corn association to offer rapid assay for ethanol potential

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, U.S. — The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a subsidiary of DuPont, have signed a letter of intent for Pioneer to donate its High Total Fermentable (HTF) Rapid Assay, the first tool designed to rapidly quantify the ethanol yield potential of corn. The near infrared (NIR) whole grain analyzer will provide the seed and rapidly growing dry-grind ethanol industries with a standard calibration and means for measuring the fermentation characteristics of corn.

Grain elevators, as well as corn growers and ethanol plants, will also be able to license the calibration from NCGA, allowing them to source grain that has potential to provide improved ethanol yield to the ethanol plants they serve.


Approval gives Japan’s bioplastics industry a boost

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The Japan Hygienic Olefin and Styrene Plastics Association (JHOSPA) has issued approval for the use of polylactic acid (PLA) in products that come in contact with food, such as plates and bowls. The approval is expected to boost the commercialization of and demand for PLA products in Japan. Japan’s PLA market has grown about 40% each year since 1998 and is expected to utilize 120,000 tonnes of PLA (equivalent to 12.5 million bushels of corn) by 2010, according to U.S. Grains Council.


Mycogen adds five more hybrids for ethanol production

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, U.S. — Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences LLC, has added five further hybrids to its lineup of Processor Preferred High Fermentable Corn (HFC) hybrids. This follows the designation of eight of its varieties as HFC in February.


Roughly 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop will be used for ethanol production by the year 2012, according to a recent survey by the USDA.


Tom Bryan is managing editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine. He may be contacted at: tbryan@bbibiofuels.com. Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writers Dave Nilles and Jessica Williams contributed to this report. Some information in this article is based on Fuel Ethanol: A Technological Evolution, a recently published report from Novozymes and BBI International.